Is wildfire for the birds? A paper explores the effects of wildfire on bird populations

Blog Post created by faithberry Employee on Oct 19, 2016

I recently read an interesting research paper, Positive effects of fire on birds may appear only under narrow combinations of fire severity and time-since-fire. It was the result of a study about observations made in the field about the effects of fire in 10 of the 11 years after a fire in a mixed-conifer forest in Western Montana on populations of 50 different species of birds. 


The paper, written by Richard L. Hutto with the Division of Biological Sciences, University of Montana and David A. Patterson from the Department of Mathematical Sciences, University of Montana examined detection rates for different species of birds inside 15 combinations of fire severity and time-since –fire against a control area of unburnt but similar stand of forest outside of the burn perimeter area.


The study found that a majority of the species (60%) were found inside the burned area rather than outside of the burned area.  What the scientists discovered is that 15 of the species do especially well in the burnt areas as opposed to any other habitat. Those species include the Mountain Bluebird, Tree Swallow, and the Three-Toed Woodpecker.  This paper examined the differences in fire severity and time-since-fire to better examine the nuanced effects of wildfire on bird species.  The study area was outside of Missoula, Montana in areas where the 2003 Black Mountain fire burned.  A total of 279 bird survey points were established and bird observations were completed during the breeding season each year (from the last week of May to the first week of July).


Some of the lessons learned are: “…we cannot rely on traditional ‘burned vs. unburned’ comparisons presented in most published reports on fire effects to assess whether species respond positively or negatively to fire.  Fire severity, time-since-fire, and other forest conditions matter to organisms that respond positively to disturbance, therefore we will have to consider the kind of forest, tree sizes and densities, fire severity and time-since-fire if we want to investigate fire effects in a biologically meaningful way.”


The paper concluded with thoughts about the importance of allowing mosaic patterns of fire to occur to maintain healthy biodiversity while at the same time ensuring that human communities are designed and maintained in a way that makes them more resistant to naturally occurring fires by following Firewise principles.


                                                                                                                     Video shared with permission from Richard L. Hutto